Softening our Hearts - Rabbi Cantor George Mordecai
Parshat Vaera sees the drama of the Exodus from Egypt unfolding. Early on in our parsha, there is a verse that I and many others find very troubling. God addresses Moses saying: “You shall repeat all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall speak to Pharaoh to let the Israelites depart from his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt.” ( Exodus 7:2-3). The problem that so many readers and commentators have with this verse is the notion that God would intentionally harden Pharaoh’s heart, prolonging the suffering of both the Israelites and the Egyptians in order to demonstrate God’s power. How fair is it of God to harden Pharaoh’s heart? Our tradition has always emphasised the importance of free choice and the possibility of repentance, of correcting one’s behaviour. From this verse it seems like Pharaoh had no choice but to play his role as oppressor without the possibility of seeing the error of his ways. One almost feels sorry for him.
Additionally, we see a continuation of God hardening Pharaoh’s heart after each plague. God states after the plague of the locusts: “For I have hardened his heart” (Exodus 10:1), and before the death of the firstborn: “The Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart and he did not let the children of Israel go out of his land.” (Exodus 11:1).
Maimonides discusses this problem in the Mishneh Torah:
“If the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, then what was his crime? There are many passages in the Scriptures which seem to contradict the principle of freewill. They imagine that the Holy One pre-ordains humans to do good or evil.
…. When a person sins of his own freewill, that person is punished ….sometimes in this world, sometime in the hereafter, and sometimes in both. When does this apply? When that person has not made amends, repentance is the antidote to retribution. But, it may sometimes happen that a person’s offence is so grave that s/he is penalised by not being granted to turn from his/her wickedness, so that the person dies with the sins that were committed.” (Mishneh Torah 5:2-3).
So it would seem that Maimonides believes there are some transgressions that cannot be forgiven. The punishment for such transgressions is the loss of free will and the ability to repent. Another way to understand Maimonides’ explanation is that we can become so deeply entrenched in negative behaviour that it can be nearly impossible to change our ways.
The story has something profound to say about the human condition. Every moment we have the opportunity to improve the way we treat others. We can easily fall into the place of Maimonides’ Pharaoh if we don’t observe our way of being in the world. Pharaoh did not have the opportunity to talk about his issues with his friends or consult a mental health professional. It’s hard to do that when you are raised by your family and society to believe that you are a god. However we have many methods at our disposal for learning how soften our hearts. When we recognise we have erred and correct our behaviour, we can be in true and authentic relationship with one another. In so doing, we liberate ourselves and others from mitzrayim, that narrow, cruel and lifeless place. Then we can confidently say ata b’nei horin, now we are truly free.
Rabbi Cantor George Mordecai
7 Ocean Street
Woollahra, NSW 2025
p: 02 9389 6444
Shabbat, January 30, 2021
17th of Sh'vat, 5781
Friday, January 29 2021 7:44PM
Motzei Shabbat 8:20PM
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